If you’re reading this that means that you are tired of having your camera always stuck in Auto mode. I often tell people wanting to learn photography that if you are going to use your DSLR in Auto mode, you might as well just use your camera phone instead. When your DSLR is always in Auto, you are not taking advantage of the benefits of a DSLR, but still lugging around the extra weight!

Switching to Manual Mode means that YOU are in control of the photos you take. Manual mode is the optimum mode to use on your DSLR camera. While a single article won’t cover all the ins and outs of using your camera in Manual mode, these hints and tips are meant to help you give you a little "nudge" in that direction.

*Please note: I refer to the DSLR, but these tips also work for the mirrorless camera as well

Big Ideas

  1. Lighting, Lighting, Lighting

  2. Try out Aperture Priority Mode

  3. Focus is Key

  4. Consider your Perspective

  5. Edit!

1. Lighting

If you only learn 1 of the big 5 ideas listed above, this one is the most important. Your lighting will make or break every single one of your photographs. Great lighting trumps everything... I mean everything. Even if you have the most adorable subject in the world (your kiddo of course) in the most amazing location ever, bad lighting will ruin your photos.

You Need Enough Light

You cannot expect to get a beautiful photograph inside your house on a rainy day with all the curtains drawn. You just can’t. If you don’t have enough light to properly expose your photographs then all your efforts will be for nothing. What’s the fix??? When shooting indoors, open those blinds and curtains and move your subject in front of a window (or even better yet, a sliding door or french doors). Even better than that, get outside! That’s where all the pretty light is anyway!

Look for Soft, Even Light

While you do need enough light, not all light is “good light.”  Harsh, overhead light from a midday sun can kill a photo.  It creates harsh shadows and gives your subject squinty eyes.  Ever wondered why your photos of the kids on the beach in the middle or the day in July don’t turn out so great?  The sun is killing your photo!  The Fix??  Find some open shade (under a beach umbrella or canopy) and consider shooting at a different time of day.  The early morning hour after sunrise and evening hour before sunset are optimal times to photograph (photographers refer to these times of day as the “golden hour”).  


Golden Hour Light

2. Aperture Priority Mode

Aperture Priority Mode is a middle ground between fully Manual mode and Auto mode.  It is by far superior to Auto mode, so while you may not be ready for fully manual just yet, Aperture Priority is a good baby step up.   

What is Aperture?

Changing your aperture (also known as F-STOP) changes the size of the opening in your lens, therefore controlling the amount of light you let into your camera.  This can be really helpful in helping more light filter into your camera if you’re in a situation where you lack light. But there is also another really cool side effect of changing your aperture; it creates that soft, dreamy, blurry background that you see so often in portraits taken by professional photographers.  


Here’s How To Do It

Set your camera to Aperture Priority mode.  That’s the “A” (Nikon) or Av (Canon) on the wheel on the top of your camera... Yay!  You’re no longer in Auto mode!  Now figure out how to change the aperture.  You may have to consult your manual for this one, as all cameras are slightly different, but it’s usually the small wheel on the front of the camera.  Turn your aperture to the lowest number possible. This means the lens is open as wide open as it can go. With this setting you are letting in the maximum amount of light. Simultaneously, you are also creating a shallow depth of field, which means you are blurring the background behind your subject.


Blurred Background Using a Wide Open Aperture

3. Focus

Getting sharp focus in the right area of your photo is key. It’s basically the only element of a photograph that can NOT be tweaked in an editing program.  Once the photo is taken, you’ve either nailed focus or you haven’t.

In Auto mode your camera makes all the decisions about focus for you. Once off Auto (you should be in Aperture Priority now), you get to make the decisions about where you want your camera to focus. You’ll need to consult your manual for this one, because this is going to vary widely according to cameras.  However, it’s important to make sure your camera is on Single Point Focus (Nikon) or Manual AF Point (Canon).  This means you will have one highlighted dot that you can see when looking in your viewfinder.  You can toggle this highlighted dot to be placed directly over where you want the main focus of your photo to be located. (Hint: in a close up portrait, move the focus point over the eye closest to you).


Sharp Focus on the Eyes

4. Change your position

Don’t Always Stand

One big thing that differentiates a “snapshot” from a beautiful photograph is the position in which the photographer is standing. Often times snapshots are taken from a standing position.  When photographing children, this means that photos are taken at a slight downward angle and isn’t always the most interesting angle to shoot from.  

Change It Up

Think about ways to make your perspective more interesting.  Get up on a chair and shoot directly down or do the exact opposite and lay on the floor to get an eye level shot of your subject.  Also try getting in close to capture small details as well as standing back to capture the whole scene. The point is, try out different angles and positions, don’t be content to just “stand and click.” You will be amazed how just being aware of your perspective and positioning will improve the quality of your photos.  


Shot from above

5. Edit your photos!

Don’t be Intimidated

Don’t worry…you don’t have to be a Photoshop wiz to do this successfully. Most laptops come with their very own editing programs built right in. This is all you need.

Start Small

Don’t get overwhelmed as editing programs can offer a ton of options for editing in the form of sliders and tools. Start by using just a few of the options available to you. For instance, cropping, exposure, contrast, and white balance are a great way to start.  Play around with your editing program until you get comfortable with these tools and then try out a few more.  You’ll be surprised how much you learn just by playing around.  

As with any skill, the best way to get better is to practice! This means go out and shoot. The more you shoot the better you will get.


 Happy Shooting!!